Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's the monsoon once more

The northeast monsoon seems to have finally set in. It’s been cloudy in Chennai the past day or so, with the occasional drizzle. It’s all right as long as there are scattered showers and the occasional drizzle, but everybody here must be dreading the cyclone that is bound to arrive. By the end of December, you can be sure that the city would have been devastated (yes, that’s the word) by one or two cyclones from the Bay of Bengal.

When I was a child in Calcutta, there was a sort of romance then with the monsoon rain. I used look out from different windows in the house to watch the crows and pigeons getting wet, some of them cuddled up on a parapet with their beaks tucked in. There would be eagles soaking in the rain, perched atop chimneys or other high points on buildings. And then there were hundreds of sparrows, too. Where do you find them these days? Chennai has lost all its sparrows - I don't remember seeing many ever since I came to the city in the early 1980s.

Yes, back in Calcutta, there would be the odd flooding on the roads. I still remember wading home from school through streets full of water, shoes in hand sometimes, and schoolbag safe on my shoulders. It was all fun, part of the carefree world of childhood when even nature seemed one with you. Nowadays, I am terrified whenever there is mention of a depression forming in the Bay of Bengal. The monsoon and the rains somehow do not hold that old charm anymore. All I can think of is the muck on the roads that you are forced to step on, the craters on the roads that erupt each monsoon and remain for weeks after, and floodwaters entering the house where I stay, like it did last year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A welcome break in Thrissur

A break from the usual routine is an absolute must. If only we could have as many breaks as possible in a year. We have a group of relatives that has been going out on excursions at regular intervals. In less than one year now, we have had four outings, which is not bad at all – Wayanad started it all, then there was Tiruvannamalai, Yercaud and last weekend, Thrissur.

The weather in Kerala was hot and sometimes the heat can take away the charm of a trek or a walk outdoors. It was a small group that left Chennai by the Alleppey Express; others joined in from Coimbatore, Bangalore and Kerala. The occasion: the 60th birthday of one of us. There was a visit to Guruvayur as well. It was a Sunday and the temple was packed with crowds – there were several weddings - but we managed to have more than a fleeting glimpse of Lord Guruvayurappan and felt great at the end of it. Then, of course, the customary visit to the Mammiyoor Temple nearby. If only trips like these last longer! But thanks for small mercies, I guess. We were at least able to meet and spend time together.

There was also the more sobering aspect of two elderly relatives being very unwell, both with almost irreversible conditions, both who could have led more productive lives. One was in a coma, the other had his mental faculties running asunder. If only God could be kinder, you wish. After all, these are people who are so dear to you and you can’t bear to see them suffering. But then, you know there is a Supreme Being out there and whatever happens in this world of ours, we have very little control. We can only pray and hope that things will get better. We can only wish the best for others and keep praying, hoping that God will listen and be there for us.

Pictures show the way to the Athirappily waterfalls in Thrissur, a view of the waterfalls from afar, a closer view, a monkey atop a tree, and monkeys having a feast.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Vintage P.C. Alexander makes his presence felt - moots 5-year secure term for governors

At the launch of Muthiah’s yet another labour of love, The Raj Bhavans of Tamil Nadu, it was the former civil servant and governor, P.C. Alexander, who outshone everyone else and stole the limelight. It might not have been the perfect forum to air his views on what I would call the politicization of the office of the governor in India, but Alexander was in full flow and, not surprisingly, the media lapped it all up. Both The Times of India and The Hindu gave prominent space to what he said.

Recollecting his years as governor of Tamil Nadu, including a year (1989) when the state was under President’s rule, Alexander said that that was the best year of his more than 55 years of civil as well as non-civil service. But he never really explained why. Perhaps it had to do with the peaceful circumstances when the state was under President’s rule.

It was all very well to have a magnificent home to stay, but the governor lacked security of tenure, Alexander said. “It is the unkindest way of keeping such a high dignitary in office. After 60 years of Independence, the governor should be given five years of security,” he said, pointing out that the appointment of the governor under the Constitution depended on the pleasure of the President of India and it could very well be that the governor woke up one morning to learn that the pleasure had been withdrawn. He also said that the pleasure was not the President’s alone, many a time the pleasure was the Prime Minister’s.

Alexander was for some method to be followed by the President for the appointment of the governor. There has to be a committee with the Chief Justice as chairman, the home minister and three eminent people, to select the governor, he said. Stating that the job of a governor was a political one, he urged politicians not to shy away from aspiring to be governor. “But when politicians become governors, they should forget their past political affiliations and deal with the job with impartiality.”

Advising governors-to-be, Alexander said that they must not consider themselves to be employees of the Centre. As a Constitutional appointee, no Prime Minister could tell the governor what should be done or who (political party) should be selected in a crisis. Referring to the framers of the Constitution and the high standards of morality and impartiality of those days, Alexander hinted at a broader look at the provisions of the Constitution relating to the appointment and powers of the governor, especially at a time when “things are not very bright.”

At his age, he probably surprised many with such a pertinent and meaningful speech. You could easily gauge his brilliance and it was not without reason that he once held perhaps the most powerful position ever held by any civil servant in India - that of principal secretary to former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An evening at the Raj Bhavan, Guindy

Well, you have to give it to him, really. S Muthiah, chronicler of Madras, is such an amazing man that it is hard to find words to describe him. Here he is with yet another book – even he has lost count of the number, he told me, adding there were more than 30.

‘The Raj Bhavans of Tamil Nadu, a coffee-table pictorial history, is a magnificent book about not only the two Raj Bhavans in Tamil Nadu, but also about the different homes of the governors before they finally moved to the Raj Bhavan in Guindy. Raj Bhavan Ooty was the summer residence-cum-office until the 1930s when the governor and his office staff would be there for about six months. That practice continued till Independence, with shorter stays, and even till 1967 with even shorter stays. That was the year the DMK came to power.

According to Muthiah, the initial brief was to prepare a typical coffee-table book, with pictures and fluffy text. But being the person he is, he declined to do anything like that and suggested instead that a pictorial history of the mansions of the governors of the state was more what he would like to do. This he mentioned today at the release function of the book, where were present Surjit Singh Barnala, the Tamil Nadu governor; P. C. Alexander, former principal secretary to Indira Gandhi, a highly distinguished diplomat who served stints abroad in the UNO and was also governor in Tamil Nadu (1988-90, including President’s rule) and in Maharashtra (1993-2002); Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali, prince of Arcot; Andrew Simkin, consul general, United States Consulate General, Chennai; Mike Nithavrianakis, British deputy high commissioner, south India; and T.V. Giridhar, director, South Zone Cultural Centre, Thanjavur (publishers of the book).

The venue: the Durbar Hall at the Raj Bhavan, Guindy.

I reached well in time, driving past healthy deer lazing around the sprawling campus. I was hesitant to stop and take pictures as there were a couple of vehicles following me on the narrow pathway. Also, it was my first visit to the governor’s residence and I was wary.

People had already begun arriving; several were seated. There was, of course, the mandatory security check. The press card helped, although I was attending the programme based on Muthiah’s personal invite. The function was scheduled to begin at 5pm and there were 15 minutes to go. There was nothing I could do except sit down in the row allotted for the Press and wait. There was Anwar, the photographer whose pictures of the two Raj Bhavans have added to the exclusivity of the book. Prasad from Pace Systems was there, with his wife. And slowly, many others I knew kept coming.

Just after the stroke of 5 in the evening, there came an announcement: “Please remain standing. His Excellency is arriving.” It was indication, if any were needed, that the tradition of the Raj continues even today in some form or the other.

What surprised me, or rather shocked me, was the utter indiscipline inside the hall even after the governor had arrived and all the dignitaries were seated on the dais. Cellphones kept beeping at intervals, people answered calls, others talked to one another – the only sound missing was a baby’s wail. There were plenty of photographers and video cameramen, so many that I wondered for whom they all worked and which publications or TV channel they represented. A cameraman from a TV channel, for instance, had two others to move around with him. Talk about utilisation of resources! There were also several men who really seemed to have no connection with the proceedings standing below the stage on either side. Were they all employed in the Raj Bhavan, I wondered again.

Thankfully, most of the speeches were short, although none too sweet. Save Alexander’s, and I shall talk about that later. The Nawab of Arcot had a four-page written speech that he managed to cut short to about eight or ten minutes, and many breathed a sigh of relief at the end of it. It was Barnala’s 85th birthday and every speaker wished him happy birthday. There were even Urdu couplets recited, by a gentleman whose name I couldn’t quite gather.

Finally, came time for the national anthem. And when high tea was announced, many were glad that it was all over.

The pictures, which I had taken, show Mike Nithavrianakis receiving the first copy of the book from Barnala; others (l-r) are Giridhar, Muthiah, Alexander, Nawab Md Abdul Ali, and Simkin; and a deer outside the Durbar Hall (your probably will need to blow up the picture to see it; it was dark and my flash weak).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Of runaway brides and bright chameleons

Quite a lousy day at the office. Almost all the stories I edited were the feel-bad kind – crimes and suicides. Judging by the recent number of suicides in the city, especially by schoolchildren and college students, I wonder where we are headed! Not allowed to celebrate Diwali with his friends, a college student hanged himself to death on Sunday. His father, a police constable, had forbidden him from joining the Diwali celebrations with his friends because he had scored low marks in an exam.

They say that you don’t realise how bad things are unless it happens to you or to people you know closely. This morning, I woke up to the sound of loud chatter from the kitchen and the doorway. My mother, my wife, the friendly woman next door who would put many a hardnosed journalist to shame (such is her nose for news) and a cranky old servant were all discussing something; actually it all seemed too confusing, you know how it is when a few women get together. Anyway, the fact was that our maid was missing from her house. Apparently, if the gossip was to be believed (more often than not, it can be), she and her husband were not getting along. I overheard them saying there was a sister-in-law who was making the life of our maid miserable. Her husband had asked her to “get lost” and that was exactly she did. So, last evening, the family came here searching for her (I wasn’t around and so didn’t know) and left in a huff.

So far, there’s no news whether she’s returned home. Chances are she might have, because few mothers would leave two small children and go away for good. She must have done that to scare him, my wife stressed. It was almost as if she was implying that if I dared to try out anything silly with her, she would choose her path. Amen.

After Shiny Ahuja’s misadventures, you have to be even careful what you say about your maid. Also, remember, that in Chennai servant maids have now formed an association or union and have demanded minimum wages for a start. Back in Calcutta where I grew up, we had an old ayah who brought my lunch to school, scrubbed my head and face with a towel after the break to clear the beads of sweat, and who accompanied me to places near home where mom would not send me alone. As I grew into adolescence and began eyeing pretty young things and attractive middle-aged women, there was hardly any maid in the area worth looking at a second time. The only shocking incident was to find one early morning the driver of a neighbour snuggling near the terrace doorway with a woman who was not his wife but a maid somewhere. He was such a pest that nobody dared say anything. Finally, he and the maid began shacking up downstairs near the motor pump.

However, I do remember of a maid who turned young men on. She worked at my friend’s house and every time I went there, which was not too often, I would take a second look at what appeared to me then to be quite a voluptuous figure. I still remember one night after a drink or two a few of us had dropped by in my friend’s place late in the night and who would open the door, but the voluptuous one. She has half asleep and whether because of that or otherwise, it was difficult to tell, but she had her sari pallu so casually thrown around her that it did nothing to hide what it was supposed to. Her huge breasts were almost on the verge of breaking loose from one of the thinnest blouses I had seen. Fortunately, they didn’t and I survived to tell this tale. Of course, you can never say with women. For all that, if we had tried something silly, she could have dealt us a resounding slap. Who knows? Can you ever tell what exactly is a woman thinking?

Well, I must end with this tailpiece. A woman I got friendly with hardly three months ago, initially replied to my smses and would even take the initiative to call and keep in touch. Two or three weeks later, she just disappeared from the radar choosing not to reply at all. And then, there was a sort of bouncing back, only to disappear again. It was clear she was the front-seat driver, choosing to communicate when she wanted and keeping silent when that helped her. A few days ago, I told her that she was not quite the person I knew earlier. Her reply was really ‘cool’ – “Yes, I have changed,” she said, adding, “I keep changing all the time.” Huh, now would you call her a chameleon?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's nice to work on a Sunday, sometimes

Well, at the end of the day’s work (night work really), I can’t complain. Life at the office could perhaps not have been more peaceful than what it was today. Not many stories to be rewritten and edited, a few pages to be proofread, and I was through even before midnight. It was while driving down the city roads that I realised how a Sunday can mean different. Or, was it just that everybody was indoors after a weekend of bursting firecrackers and a month-long routine of shopping? I’ll perhaps never know. All that I saw were empty roads, few cars and even fewer two-wheelers – can you believe that in Chennai? Except for some activity at the Ashok Pillar junction, where I didn’t have to stop because the signal was blinking yellow and there was hardly any traffic, it was one hell of a roller-coaster ride.

Tonight, even the liquor shops seemed to have closed early. I did not see the usual groups of people chatting away or entering into inebriated conversations. There is one spot where you usually find a group of men, either standing near motorcycles or astride them. I have never been able to gather what really happens in the building adjacent. Perhaps there is a wine shop. Or may be it is pleasure of the forbidden kind. Quite a lot of that exists in Chennai, as anybody can tell you. For all you know, the portly middle-aged, heavy-breasted woman next door could well be running a brothel. It actually happened once in the colony I stay. And it took quite some time and effort to get her to vacate.

Coming back to the day at the office, as I have said, I hate all these crime and tragedy stories. And while editing some of them churned out by our master crime story writers, I almost feel like a young doctor wielding the scalpel for the first time, hesitant and unsure, wondering what the final outcome will be. Today, there was this rather bizarre story about a woman in the kitchen busy cooking, when suddenly a firecracker ‘rocket’ landed in the vessel full of hot oil. You can well imagine what happened. There must have been some ugly, deafening sound and, sure enough, the hot oil splashed all over the woman’s body. Her burn injuries were severe and, frankly, I do not even remember whether the copy mentioned her as being dead or alive; although I do think it is the latter. So horrific and sudden can death be sometimes.

Thankfully, there were fewer injuries from fire accidents this Diwali than last year, but there were many more fire accidents. Despite all the awareness drives initiated by the police commissioner and the Corporation officials to raise about fire safety and what have you, we are at the end of the day, Indians. And being Indians, we all love to listen to something and forget about it, or be just plain disobedient. I noticed many children yesterday, most of them hardly six years old, lighting up firecrackers and scampering away to ‘safety’ even as elders watch with amusement yards away. One even had a candle burning dangerously close to a Maruti car.

Anyway, Diwali this year is over… well almost. My wife now tells me that a few people in the city will be celebrating the Festival of Lights tomorrow (Monday) as well, as will the people of Karnataka. Beyond that, there’s the monsoon to look forward to. And only after it has come and flooded Chennai in ample measure can we even think of Christmas and the New Year.

Spring always comes

For almost a year now, I have not had two back-to-back holidays. You know how it is working for a newspaper. Finally, Diwali fell on a Saturday (small mercies) and then there was the regular Sunday off. However, you can plan all you want but reality can be a little harsh sometimes. Last night, I received a call from the other editor (somebody called us “rewrite specialists”) asking a favour of me – whether I could come in on Sunday (today) and give him HIS two back-to-back holidays. I had told him that I’d get back to him today, taking some time to think whether that would indeed be possible. After all, I had planned to go out with my wife and her cousins, generally going around town. She was probably looking forward to it as well because, caught as we all are in the midst of our day-to-day work, we hardly find time to be in the company of the people who are close to us. And by this, I mean not only my wife, but also relatives and friends. I wish at times that all those afternoons and evenings of carefree banter, laced with cigarette smoke would come alive again. But that may yet never be.

Indeed, I might have just lost a friend forever… I’m quite sure. I had promised her several times that I would visit her place, a quiet lovely nook as good as any you will find in Chennai. With trees all around, the occasional sound of the temple bell and the twittering of birds, it's an ideal place for lazing and having long meaningful conversations. And if you have a glass of chilled beer in your hands, the experience might almost be heavenly. In any case, my promises remained just that – promises. Not that I intended to hurt her, but something or the other would always turn up at the last moment and I would not be able to make it. This time, she was clearly annoyed and minced no words – if you really cared for people and for what you say, you would have found the time to be here. It just shows how important a friend I am in your life, she blurted out. I was, of course, apologetic. Tried to pacify her with soothing words, but somehow, there seemed to be a finality to her words. And, judging by what I had done, there really was no reason why she shouldn’t be annoyed with me. So mush for carefree afternoons of banter and chilled beer and wisps of cigarette smoke... I, of course, left the smoking habit for good years ago.

Which brings me back to the day ahead. As I key in these words, it’s almost lunchtime. In a few hours I’d be in office, rewriting and editing monotonous stuff, most of it crime stories that interest me the least. Not that anything else interests me much these days. Politics doesn’t… you see the condition of roads in Chennai, the number of unnecessary flyovers that have been and are being built, the garbage piled up at places, the flouting of traffic rules, drunken driving… the list is endless… and you detest the politician and the administrators. This is not something Chennai-specific; it’s the same story across India. Perhaps it’s better here in the south. Sport doesn’t interest me as much as it did when I was younger. There’s such an overdoes of cricket that you simple don’t care who’s playing or what the tournament is. Yes, I do try to find time to watch the odd Federer brilliance or the Usain Bolt magic. But that’s it.

Now, I wonder why life has to be like this…. Not quite the way I had wished it would be. Personally, once you cross the 45-year mark, you sense almost daily that your dreams are all over and the best will never come. It takes a lot of courage then to face life head-on, especially when a sense of despair overwhelms you, when you know you are not really doing the things you ought to be. But there is always hope. I remember a book my sister used to read and quote often from, when we spent our childhood days together in good old Calcutta years ago. Spring always comes, she would say, and I find myself echoing those very words when I reach a point of no return.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

'Chai, Chai' brings a new flavour

It’s been exactly two weeks since I put a new post on my blog. When I started blogging in July 2006, I had never really thought of it as a serious pursuit, the reason why that year there were only two productive months for my blogs, would you believe it! And those blogs, in any case, were driven by the fact that I had decided to churn out something for Madras Day. That I ended up writing more about motor racing and ecological sanitation for rural communities was another matter. There was an improvement in 2007, when I produced blogs for five months, again buoyed by the Madras Week events. It’s only in the past two years that I have tried to be more dogged, writing about several things that I care about, and not just Madras Day and Madras Week.

Nevertheless, during the past two days, I have been doing some introspection, wondering whether writing about things that have already been reported makes any sense at all. After all, a blog is all about finding a platform to express your opinion and letting go of your emotions once in a while. The introspection was driven in part by a friend’s blog, of which I have managed to read only a few posts. And in the days and weeks ahead, you might notice a new flavour to my blogs.

Bishwanath Ghosh’s blog, ‘By the Ganges’ or ‘On the Ganga Mail’ (click alongside to read) I found captivating… more for its simplicity and openness, and, yes, in the depth of its emotion as well. BG, as he is better known among friends, is my colleague in the newspaper office. He is a man of few words, and when he speaks he is hardly audible. But that’s his style; most of the time, he appears to be in a world of his own even though he may be keying in a story or editing a piece. BG is a thinker and writer. No, he is not cut out for putting the famous TOI ‘package’ stories together. Thankfully, it now appears he will be begin a new innings as a ‘writer only’, with a lot of flexibility thrown into his work schedule. Well, more power to his pen or the keys on his keyboard, for BG has quite a few books in him.

BG’s first book, ‘Chai, Chai’ was launched in the markets a few days earlier. But it received a formal launch at the Madras Book Club meeting on Thursday (October 15) that saw a full house, complete with ‘people who matter’ in attendance. Of course, you can’t think of the Madras Book Club without S. Muthiah or K.S. Padmanabhan, and nowadays, S.R. Madhu. I still remember the days when there would be hardly 50-odd people to grace a Book Club meet. There would be tea, no snack that I can remember. But ever since the Hotel Connemara showed interest and offered space for the meetings and also offered snacks, attendance grew and more joined in as members.

The growth of the Club has mainly been due to the fact that Muthiah and Padmanabhan between themselves have been able to get several well-known authors to have their books launched through the Club in Chennai, and get a decent audience for the launch of books of the not-so-well-known authors, too. There are, on an average, about two meetings in a month, which is more than value for money (a single membership for a year costs only Rs 600). That the Club has grown in stature is evident. Muthiah said at the launch of BG’s book that Jaswant Singh was trying to get a date for the launch of his book on Jinnah at a Madras Book Club meeting.

Coming back to BG, for a man of few words, it is not easy to make a public speech. But he played it right, by opting not to speak as such. P.C. Ramakrishna, the man with the golden voice, did a great job, reading excerpts from the book, adding anecdotes, and throwing questions at BG to get the conversation started. And then the others joined in. There were several in the audience who had interesting comments to make; one even wondered whether Basin Bridge could have featured as an important junction in the book.

I wonder whether BG has plans for another book on platforms, but I did suggest to him that he could in the future visit some of the lesser-known, quaint railway stations (like one called Champa in east Madhya Pradesh I used to get down often at once) that you find in many places in India. Life in and around these stations might be an altogether different story than the ones BG has written about – of Jolarpet, Guntakal, Shoranur and others.

BG naturally felt the absence of his mother at the launch; she had passed away only a few weeks ago. But in the warmth that was palpable at the evening function and the welcome which ‘Chai, Chai’ received, it was clear that the son had his mother’s blessings in abundance.

BG will soon get started with his second book that is likely to feature specific areas in Madras that is Chennai. Royapuram is probably the first locality in his list.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Some way to honour the Mahatma!

This is something I just cannot not digest. The New Indian Express carried a story about Mont Blanc, the classic pen makers, bringing out a limited edition Rs 14 lakh pen on the Father of the Nation. Only 241 such pens would be available worldwide – inspired by the 241-mile Dandi march. There is also a cheaper edition of the pen, costing Rs 1.5 lakh and Rs 1.7 lakh!

The report says that the pen comes with a gold wire entwined around the middle, to apparently evoke the roughly wound yarn on the spindle with which Gandhi spun everyday. Good heavens! Where lies a gold wire and a roughly wound yarn!

Did Mont Blanc find no better way of honouring the Mahatma? Come on, if Gandhi was known for one thing, it was frugality. He might have worn a three-piece suit during his early years in South Africa, but ever after he led the freedom struggle in India, the man was always seen bare-bodied, with a loin cloth covering him and a rudimentary walking stick. Did he ever wear a watch or posses one? I don’t think so. At least, I have never seen a picture of him wearing a watch, and I’m talking of his days in India.

Surely, the money that people are willing to pay for such grand watches can be used to feed the poor in India, people who do not even get a morsel of food a day. And there are millions of them, 62 years after Independence. You can see them in cities, in towns, and you only have to think of life in the villages to get a feeling of what the conditions there are.

And what is more astonishing is to see a picture in the Express of Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma’s great grandson, launching the edition of the watch in Mumbai.

If Gandhi were alive today, what would he have done, I wonder, at the launch of such luxury in his name!

I am, therefore, not surprised at all to learn that Dijo Kappen, managing trustee, Centre for Consumer Education, has moved the Kerala High Court seeking a ban on the sale of both editions of the pen. It is totally against all that Mahatma Gandhi stood for, he says. And I couldn’t agree more.

It is a shame to see the ways of the world – commercial as they are – and the way Gandhi’s name is used to sell. I almost feel like puking.